A three-win 2016 season reminded Utah State fans of the decades of mediocrity that preceded their recent run of bowl games, 10-win seasons and conference contention.
Though they're undergoing some rebuilding in the trenches and face an equally challenging schedule again in 2017, the Aggies have a new offensive coordinator, return a slew of upperclassmen in the secondary and can't possible generate fewer turnovers than last year.
Utah State tied their lowest win total in a decade with a 3-9 season, punctuated by losses in eight of their final nine games, including five straight to end the season. They lost all five one-possession games and lost to Wyoming and San Diego State (both of whom tied for the conference lead with six wins) by a combined 51 points.
Head Coach: Matt Wells (5th year, 28-25)
After two honeymoon seasons at his alma mater, reality hit for Matt Wells the last couple years, dropping form 19 total wins (2013-14) to nine (2015-16).
The former quarterback and Aggies' offensive coordinator under Gary Andersen needs to get his offense out of a rut that produced just 23.9 points per game and buried them in the tough Mountain Division.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Kent Myers, RB Tonny Lindsey Jr., WR Ron'quavion Tarver, OT Preston Brooksby
Former Oregon quarterbacks coach David Yost took over as offensive coordinator and is simplifying a unit that ranked 108th nationally in scoring, 93rd in passing and 96th in yardage average. The hope is to make dual-threat quarterback Kent Myers more efficient, which he was in the spring game, completing 10 of 12 passes.
"Really, it's simple offense," Myers said after the spring game. "You've just go to go out there and really invest, and really take everything in practice and translate it into the game. When we do that we can score a lot of points."
Tonny Lindsey, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry in relief of injured starter Devante Mays last season, is back, as is leading receiver Ron'quavion Tarver, the only Aggie to have more than 600 receiving yards in 2016. Preston Brooksby, the only returning starter on the offensive line, helped Utah State rush for 2,000 yards for the eighth-straight season.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DE Ian Togiai, LB Derek Larsen, LB Alex Huerta, LB Chase Christiansen, CB Jalen Davis, CB Wesley Bailey, S Dallin Leavitt, S Jontrell Rocquermore
One candidate for a breakout season is junior linebacker Chase Christiansen. The 6-foot-1, 235-pounder led a defense that registered 14 tackles for loss and five sacks in the spring game.
"Aggressiveness, a big emphasis on turnovers and improvement on pass rush," said Matt Wells in April. "A lot of times it’s just individual technique, but it’s also the different pressures that we bring because we’re a very aggressive defense.
Utah State forced just 10 turnovers last year, 125th nationally, and Wells is looking to four returning defensive backs to change that, namely Dallin Leavitt. The BYU transfer made a huge impact immediately, recording 57 tackles, two tackles for loss and leading the team with three interceptions.
Notable Player Losses
RB Devante Mays, WR Rayshad Lewis, TE Wyatt Houston, OL Austin Albrecht, OL Jake Simonich, C Austin Stephens, DT Travis Seefeldt, DE Ricky Ali'fua, LB Anthony Williams, LB Brock Carmen, CB Devin Centers, CB Daniel Gray
The Utah State offensive line was gashed by departures, including three-time all-conference honorable mention center Austin Stephens. Also gone is Devante Mays — though he missed of the season with injuries — and Wyatt Houston, who had at least 25 receptions and 300 yards each of the last two years. And after starring as a true freshman, receiver Rayshad Lewis transferred to Maryland.
Defensively, leading tacklers Anthony Williams and Brock Carmen graduated, as di Ricky Ali'fua, who led the pressure-challenged team with eight tackles for loss and 3.5 tackles.
Notable Player Additions
OT Roman Andrus, G Rob Castandea, C Quin Ficklin
The Aggies most notable additions are all offensive line transfers, all of whom could start Week 1 vs. Wisconsin. Roman Andrus and Quin Ficklin both started their careers at BYU, but Andrus played on the defensive line (he also played defensive line for one season at Snow College before coming to Utah State).
"If I can work hard and I can be one of those five guys, there'll be a spot for me," Ficklin said in March. "If somebody else can be one of this five guys, there's going to be a spot for them. I don't look at my teammates and think I have to beat him. At the end of the day it's about Utah State. It's not about Quin Ficklin."
Utah State has never shied away from difficult non-conference road games — usually against elite Power Five opponents. That continues in 2017 with Wisconsin.
They nearly upset the Badgers in 2012 — in a game that likely influenced Barry Alvarez's decision to hire Gary Andersen three months ago — but they were also an 11-win team that year whose only two loses came by a total of five points.
The Aggies don't play a conference home game until Oct. 7 vs. Colorado State and only have back-to-back home games once.
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